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Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Blu Ray and DVD (Eureka!)

A lifelong prisoner finds his passion in birds

John Frankenheimer’s Oscar-nominated drama was adapted from a partially-fictionalised biography written by Thomas E. Gaddis about convicted murderer and respected ornithologist Robert Stroud. Gaddis (played by Edmond O’Brien) narrates the tale in flashback from the time of Stroud’s release in 1959.

It begins 50 years earlier, in 1909, as Stroud (played by Burt Lancaster) is sent to Leavenworth Prison for killing a man. The institution’s warden, Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) is determined that he be rehabilitated. However, during his time inside he ends up killing one of the guards during an altercation, resulting in him being put on death row.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

His devoted mother Elizabeth (Thelma Ritter) launches an appeal for clemency from the American President. It is granted - but with the proviso that he lives out the rest of his life in solitary confinement. One day, while spending a few minutes in the exercise yard, he spots a baby sparrow chirping out in the rain. He decides to adopt it, feeding it on dead cockroaches until it is old enough to fly away. His success results in himself and the other prisoners in the wing - including his neighbour, Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) - being allowed to bring in other birds in order to raise them. However, things take a dramatic turn as the birds start succumbing to septic fever. Stroud reads up various ornithological books and begins mixing chemical compounds in order to help them overcome their condition. When he ultimately succeeds, his findings begin to earn him credibility far outside of the prison walls.

The rest of the film follows the ups and downs of his remarkable life spent entirely in incarceration.

Watch a trailer:

Inspiring, albeit not entirely accurate

Before launching into a critique of this film, it is necessary to get a couple of points out of the way. Firstly, as a portrait of the real-life figure of Robert Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz takes certain liberties. While the broad outline of his story is true (he did indeed keep birds in Leavenworth prison as well as contributing much of worth towards the field of ornithology during his stretch), some of the secondary characters are fictional personas and the portrayal of Stroud himself has been softened considerably. Here, he’s shown to be an innately decent man with a non-conformist mentality and an occasional tendency to lose control, who gradually begins to win the respect of those around him. In reality, he was a diagnosed psychopath and paedophile who carried out frequent violent acts and was feared and loathed by prison staff and inmates alike. It was author Gaddis’s intention to purpose his story into a plea for reform of the United States penal system, rather than providing the most balanced account possible.

Secondly, the title Birdman of Alcatraz is somewhat misleading since both the real-life and Gaddis’s versions of the character were only allowed to keep birds during his stretch in Leavenworth - never during his subsequent time served on Alcatraz Island.

Burt Lancaster and Neville Brand in Birdman of Alcatraz

When taken as a work of fiction, however, Frankenheimer’s adaptation is an engrossing and inspiring film. Burt Lancaster turns in one of his best performances of his career as he veers from being an intimidating and angry hulk to a passionate and thoughtful human being. He remains the central focus for a lengthy runtime of nearly two and a half hours but keeps us gripped with his mixture of grand soliloquies and more subtle, pensive scenes. The supporting cast is also great, particularly Karl Malden as a warden who is steely and determined, yet not so entirely heartless as to be an outright villain. Telly Savalas turns in a typically colourful and full-on piece of character work as a highly-strung inmate stuck in the cell next to Stroud who shares his love of birds. Neville Brand is also notable as a gruff guard who gradually warms to our main protagonist. Naturally, the birds themselves practically steal the show at certain points.

In terms of filmmaking, Birdman of Alcatraz’s achievements are more subtly impressive. Sound design is excellent - in particular, the telling use of birdsong which is dramatically notable by its sudden absence when they get sick. There are also some superb wide, deep focus and Dutch angle shots, all signature John Frankenheimer filmmaking touches. A scene where Stroud is drunk on alcohol distilled from chemicals used to create his bird medicines is a classic example of the last type of shot, where the birds spectacularly fill his cell as he releases them in his stupor. The atmospheric prison riot finale (based on the real-life Battle of Alcatraz) also displays the director’s flair for action sequences. The film as a whole, however, is more about human character reform and self-actualisation than it is about violence and frenzy - so thus even this excursion shapes itself into a startling moment of dramatic epiphany.

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t quite flawless, even when considering the aforementioned inaccuracies in its account of a real-life persona. Perhaps the one real shortcoming in terms of filmmaking here is that most of it was shot on fairly obvious sets. This issue wasn’t entirely the fault of the filmmakers themselves (the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons refused to allow them to shoot in real-life penitentiaries or cooperate with them on any other level) but, nonetheless, the result is that the proceedings don’t feel quite as authentic as they could have been. However, these are only minor complaints when weighed against the film’s overall quality.

Runtime: 148 mins

Dir: John Frankenheimer

Script: Guy Trosper, based on a book by Thomas E. Gaddis

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Betty Field, Telly Savalas, Edmond O’Brien

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

There are some visual specks and other blemishes here and there (I’ll let off an early shot of a train which is absolutely covered in scratches, if only because it appears to be stock footage) but otherwise the picture looks very sharp and detailed. The film’s use of sound comes across superbly in the disc’s uncompressed audio track, really adding a sense of depth and drama to the film.

Extras

Audio Commentary

A lively three-way discussion featuring director Nick Redman, editor Paul Seydor and film essayist Julie Kirgo. They talk about the real-life Stroud who, as I mentioned in my review, was far more fearsome than the book and film’s portrayals suggest. For example, the film suggests that his second homicide (the killing of a prison guard) was partially motivated by self-defence, whereas in real life this wasn’t the case. The film also implies that his being kept in solitary confinement for most of his life was a mean-spirited response when, in fact, it was done because of his numerous acts of violence towards other prisoners as well as his predatory homosexuality.

At one point, the rights for the novel were held by the producers of a TV play series called Playhouse 90, which John Frankenheimer himself worked on. Since these were performed live in front of the camera, the disbelieving director commented that “the birds would have flown the coop before the first commercial”. Since Burt Lancaster didn’t get on well with Frankenheimer during their first film together, The Young Savages, the project was initially placed in the hands of English director Charles Crichton. However, when Lancaster saw the former film for himself, he was so impressed that he had Frankenheimer reinstated.

Completing the film was a challenging process. The initial cut was an excessive four hours long, resulting in the first section of the film needing to be rewritten and then reshot. Since Lancaster was tied up in his next film, Judgement at Nuremberg, the filmmakers had to wait for him to finish it and then bring him back for the reshoots. Around two thousand canaries were used and sometimes the crew had to wait for hours, in cramped spaces, behind wire mesh in order to catch them exhibiting the desired behaviour for a given scene. Frankenheimer commented that it felt like they were in prison themselves! Animal lovers will doubtless be saddened to hear that the birds seen succumbing to diseases in the film were, in fact, killed for real - via pouring lighter fluid down their throats.

Illusion of Freedom: Richard H. Kline on John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz

This interesting 28-minute documentary features the film’s camera operator talking about the challenges in completing the film and the technical aspects of photography. He reveals that the film was shot black-and-white because filming in colour during the early 1960s necessitated using large lights which would have been too hot for the birds to tolerate. The film’s bird handler, A.W. Kennard, had different groups of birds which could perform different actions as were necessary for a given scene. The bird hatching scene which is shown in the film was shot in post-production by a separate crew, without Kline’s involvement.

Interview with Sheldon Hall

Hall, a film historian at Sheffield Hallam University, takes a look at the history behind the making of Birdman of Alcatraz as well as discussing director John Frankenheimer’s filmmaking style.

There were various attempts made to adapt Robert Stroud’s story to film - the first in 1948, several years before Thomas E. Gaddis’s biography came out. The book used correspondence between Stroud and both his family and the wider bird-raising community as source material, a factors which goes some way towards explaining the more positive light in which he is portrayed.

Birdman of Alcatraz was produced by Norma Productions, a company formed by Harold Hecht and star Burt Lancaster, mainly for the latter’s star vehicles. Their films were funded by United Artists. However, since a number of their late-1950s productions had lost millions of dollars in total, Lancaster was heavily indebted to the studio. As a result, the actor agreed to make Birdman of Alcatraz and three of his other early-1960s films on a reduced salary of $150,000 per picture (his usual fee was $750,000).

Lancaster wanted to meet with Stroud to get his cooperation in the filmmaking process but the latter refused to do so. However, he finally agreed to invite the star to meet him in a prison hospital in 1963, mere months before his death.

The extras are rounded out by a trailer and enclosed booklet.

Overall:

While Birdman of Alcatraz takes some liberties with the facts, it’s still a classic piece of cinema. The extras are solid and add a lot of value to the overall package.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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